DARK TRAIL HOME

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Kearney Junction was packed for the fourth of July. Farm wagons lined the brick streets. Ranchers brought in horses and cattle to the stock yards. Tyree pushed his way through the crowd and wandered around the tables loaded with food. Mark was on his heels, chattering like a magpie. He hadn’t seen Ms. Aileen or Malone, not that he was looking for them. Mark followed him in the saloon, and he bought a whiskey bottle, then returned to the porch to watch the crowd. He offered the whiskey to Mark.

“Joel will have my hide if I drink that.”

“Suit yourself.” Tyree said.

There was a man with a deputy badge here and there, carrying sawed-off shotguns. Gut spreaders.

The band sat on the barbershop’s porch, and there was a place cleared as people danced.

As for himself, he was slowly getting drunk. He wandered away from Mark who was surrounded by town girls. It hadn’t been a plan, but as he wove through the crowd and found a few girls to dance with, the whiskey relaxed him enough to ask them. One girl, a slim, curvy blond, pushed up against him and introduced herself.

“I’m Katherine, I saw you from the other end of town.”

She must have some good eyes to see him from so far. He grinned at her.

“Wanna dance, Katherine?” He asked. She wanted to do more than dance, and he was just drunk enough to follow her to the hayloft of the livery stable. He shoved the whiskey bottle into a pocket in the hay and grabbed her around the waist. She didn’t resist as he pulled her down into the hay, or when he planted a kiss on her lips.

“Your hair looks like gold, Ms. Katherine,” he slurred.

She ran her fingers up behind his ears into his hair as her lips melted against his.

“Your eyes look like winter sky,” she breathed. He chuckled, “winter sky. Most girls don’t like my eyes. You like my eyes?”

“I like all of you, Tyree, but your eyes look like ice.” She ran a hand down his bicep and ran her tongue lightly over his lip.

He lay on top of her, kissing his way from her lips down her neck and into the shirt she was opening up.

“You live close by, Katherine?” He asked, his words muffled by her soft skin. She pulled his shirt open further and ran her fingers down his chest. She let her nails trail across a thin scar on his side, he flinched at the sharp tickle.

“Um, you smell like lilacs,” he said as she worked at his pants, pulling them loose and sliding her hand down into them.

“You like?” She crooned.

“Smells like a whore house. I hate lilacs.”

He was stunned when she slapped him, busting his lip. He tasted the blood and held her hands down so she couldn’t hit him again.

“You just call me a whore?”

“No. No. I didn’t. That ain’t what I meant. You are sweet as honey.”

Katherine was trying to get up, but he held her down until she stopped fighting, burying his face in her neck. Lilacs or no, she was sweet and warm and his body responded to her.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say it like that. You are pretty and sweet and I want you.”

“You aren’t very romantic, Tyree, but you are a handsome devil. Shut up and kiss me.”

He kissed her, and he managed to get out of his breeches while doing so, kicking off his boots and using his toe to push the breeches off. She might smell like a bordello, but she was ripe as a summer huckleberry. She peeled off layers of clothes until they were surrounded only by hay and each other. She squirmed to lay on top of him, straddle his hips, her long blond hair hanging in his face. Soft hot flesh surrounded him, and he moaned with her as passion washed over them. Sweat rolled down her chest, and he swung up his hips to roll them over in the hay, pulling her hips up to his own. She wrapped long slender legs around his waist.

“You’re hot as a two-dollar pistol, Katherine. You’re going to make my heart come right out of my chest.”

When they were both exhausted, he lay back, her fingers running down his belly and into his hair. When the sun slipped down, and the shadows lengthened out, she sat up and started pulling her clothes on.

“I better get back out there or my daddy will send his deputies to look for me,” she whispered.

“What?” Tyree opened his eyes at her words.

“My daddy. He’s the sheriff. Jacob Tinsley.”

“Holy hell,” Tyree growled. He grabbed for his breeches and started tugging them on, getting them tangled up with his spurs. Katherine was giggling as he stumbled and fell over.

“Sheriff. That’s all I need.”

He dragged his boots on and headed for the ladder. She snatched at his bandana, bringing him abruptly to a halt. She wrapped her hand around the back of his neck and kissed him.

“You’re a lot of fun Tyree.”

“You want to get me kilt.” He accused her as he pulled away from her. She was laughing as he clamored down the ladder. She followed him to the door, and wrapped her arms around him. He took a peek out the door and pressed her up against the wall.

“You little hussy. I ought to take you over in that stall and do it all again,” he laughed. He kissed her hard enough to bruise her lip, and she pushed him away.

“Don’t be so rough.”

“Sorry, really I am, but damn girl. You are sweet and dangerous as a blackberry in a brier patch full of rattlesnakes.” He stumbled into the street still buttoning his shirt and staggered into a cowhand who was dancing with a girl, he tripped over the girl’s skirt, and the cowhand was on him in an instant, throwing a punch to his chin and knocking Tyree into the dirt.

“What the hell, get your drunk ass out of here,” the cowboy said.

As Tyree got up, the cowhand pushed him, and Tyree stepped to one side, swung, connecting solidly with the man’s nose, knocking him backward into other people. In a matter of minutes, more fists were flying, and Tyree fell under them. He was too drunk to stand, much less fight. Vaguely, he thought to himself, this is a good reason not to get drunk.

Someone kicked him in the leg, and he rolled onto his hands to get up, and another blow landed in his ribs. That’s when he reached for his knife. That was when a gun butt came down on his head.

He woke up in jail the next morning with a headache the size of Texas. He was face down on the cold floor, dirt embedded in his cheek. He smelled the distinct odor of piss. He prayed he wasn’t lying in it. He pushed up and slid over into the corner, finding he wasn’t alone in the cell. The two bunks were full; a fourth fellow was standing against the wall. Tyree groaned. Well, shit.

A thick bump ran alongside his head; it felt thick as his finger. Crusted blood was in his nose and around the cut on his lip. His ribs hurt, and his leg bruised.

“A drink of water would be welcome here,” he called, hoping someone heard him. A deputy opened the outer door. He was kind enough to give Tyree a cup of water.

“You started that shindig out there. I bet you wished you hadn’t now, yeah?” The skinny little deputy snickered.

“I’ve done smarter things. When can I get out of here?”

“Oh, you can go now,” the deputy said; he lifted his keys from his pocket and worked a long, thin key into the door.

“Us too?” The fellow leaning against the wall asked.

“Sure, you got twenty dollars for bail? Or a boss that will spring you?” Scrawny asked. Tyree was a little slow to understand.

“Somebody paid my bail?”

“Hmm, yeah. Mr. Malone. Said to let you out when you woke up.”

“Malone paid it?”

“Joel Malone. That’s right. Said he’s gonna work it out of you.”

Tyree grunted, “where’s my hardware?”

The deputy stepped to the gun cabinet and lifted out his gun belt and knife. “You’re lucky I dropped you before you got all loose with that knife. Malone wouldn’t have been able to bail you out.”

Tyree strapped the gun belt on and checked the loads in his gun. He took the knife and asked after his horse.

“Livery stable, over by the tracks.”

Late that afternoon, he rode back to Ms. Aileen’s, feeling like he’d been chewed up and spit out. He pulled his saddle off the buckskin and climbed into the loft. He fell straight to sleep.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

“What happened to your face?” Ms. Aileen asked when he’d finally gone to the house. He had a black eye, and a bruised lip. Tyree didn’t bother to lie to her. He figured Malone told her. If he’d known how she was going to react, he might have lied, though.

“You were in jail? For what?”

“I reckon there was a fight. Seems like I was a little drunk and took a swing at some fella.”

“That is terrible, fighting like some street urchin. Don’t you have any self respect?”

He blinked at her, not having a clue what she meant. His face burned hot at the look of disgust she leveled at him.

“Scuse me?” Tyree asked.

“I would expect that behavior from some street trash, but not from –” she was saying. Then she got a funny look on her face and stared at him for the longest time.

She turned without a word and saddled her horse. He watched her turn the animal toward the narrow road behind the barn that led to the creek and Malone’s place.

When she was gone, he walked over to the barn wall and plucked the feather out that still stuck there. His finger slid down the feather. He smoothed it out and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He leaned against the wall, staring out where the graves were. He took the feather there and let it go. The wind swirled it around. It drifted down to the freshest grave.

He was thinking about what Mark had said. She’d been seeing Davy… not him.

“Davy, I can’t take your place. I hope she knows that.”

He raked out the old hay and pushed it out the end of the barn. Rats were running out, and the chickens were chasing them as he swept the barn floor with an old broom.

Tyree usually was aware of everything going on around him. It was second nature to keep an ear out, to search around. His mind was on Malone bailing him out, and Ms. Aileen scolding him. His mind was full of confusion, questions, completely distracted.

He was standing in the doorway, rolling himself a smoke, when he heard a sound right behind him. The sound of cloth rubbing together.

He spun around, his gun in his hand, the hammer laid back under his thumb, his other hand ready to fan the hammer. A shock coursed through him, a flash of fire, then ice—that sensation of being caught off guard. Malone was there, his eyes widening and backing up, hands out like he was trying to catch himself.

“Lord boy, put that gun away. I didn’t mean to startle you. Holy hell kid.”

“God damn it. God damn it to hell. I could have kilt you. Don’t never do that to me. Shit, hellfire, damn!”

“I wasn’t trying to sneak up on you. I just… Jesus H. Christ kid!” Malone looked terrified, then mad, then embarrassed, and he shook his head like he was trying to shake the thoughts loose from his head.

He glared at Tyree for a minute, then turned and headed off to the house. Tyree’s knees turn to water, and he sank to the ground. He was shocked that he’d been that lost in thought. He was nearly sick to his stomach. He could have killed Malone so easily.

Why was Malone here? He was almost sorry for the man. He knew what it felt like to have a gun in your face like that. It wasn’t a good feeling. Striding toward the house, he noted that Malone’s horse was in the yard, dragging rein, grazing. Malone must have gone inside. He stepped onto the porch and pushed through the door. He imagined what the man would tell Ms. Aileen. They needed to straighten this out.

He found Malone sitting in the kitchen, his arms folded, just staring at the table. There was a pie sitting on the table, but that’s not where he was staring. Tyree spoke from the doorway.

“That there’s gooseberry pie. I made it last night, Ms. Aileen showed me how. There’s cold milk too if you want some.”

Malone’s anger accentuated the sneer on his lip.

“Thanks. I appreciate you making me feel at home.” Malone’s words dripped sarcasm.

Tyree grunted. He supposed it was annoying to have someone who was a stranger only three months ago treat him like he was a guest when he’d been here so much longer. It gave him a little of satisfaction, too.

“No problem. You’re always welcome,” Tyree snickered.

“You moved right in. You got yourself comfortable awful fast, Mr. Allison.”

“I’m sorry bout that in the barn. I jus didn’t know nobody’s round. You’re damn quiet,” Tyree said seriously. “I appreciate you bailing me out. I will pay you back. And really, I’m sorry about that out there_”

“Who the hell are you? Why are you even here?”

“I’m trying to apologize,” he said lamely.

“Why you still here?”

“I work here.”

“You don’t belong here,” Malone said flatly.

Tyree leaned in the doorway, chewing his lip. He wasn’t sure what to say. Where had Ms. Aileen gone? What was Malone doing here? Don’t belong here. The words stung more than they should have. Why did he care what Malone thought?

“I don’t know what you mean. Ms. Aileen hired me.”

“You shouldn’t be here.”

“I don’t work for you. I work for Ms. Aileen,” he said flatly.

“You got something smart to say every time I’m over here, arguing, lipping off. You made a threat last time I was here. You just pulled a gun on me.”

“That was an accident, you come sneakin_”

“Why are you still here?” Malone demanded again. The harshness of the words whipped at him like slaps.

“I like it here.”

“Missus Lassiter doesn’t need you here. If it’s just a job, you need, I got work you can do. I’ll pay you a fair wage.”

“If Ms. Aileen don’t want me here, all she’s got to do is say so.”

“She too polite to say so. I’m saying it for her. She don’t want you here. It’s time for you to move on.”

He stiffened against the words. She don’t want me here.

“You can’t stay here. You want a job, you go over to my place. Talk to Pete Johnson, he’s my ramrod. He’ll put you to work.”

“Why the hell, should I do that? I got a job right here.”

“I should ought to take a belt to you for that mouth.”

“You can try,” Tyree dared him, his embarrassment, the hurt momentarily, replaced by anger.

Malone looked at him hard, his jaw working. He looked like he wanted to. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly before he continued.

“You mouthy little gutter snipe. Between that mouth and you just taking over, doing what you damn well please over here. I think you need to move on, before I lose my patience. You’re lucky Missus Lassiter is looking out for you. She asked me to hire you or I wouldn’t even consider it.”

“She asked you to throw me out?”

“She asked me to put you to work because she don’t want you here.”

“What you gonna do if I refuse to leave?” Tyree challenged him.

Malone slammed his fist down on the table and strode across the room in two long strides. He reached for Tyree. Tyree took a quick step back out the door, out of his reach, and stumbled down the steps.

“I get my hands on you I’ll rip your arms off, and beat you to death with them, you insolent little heathen. Now get on that mustang of yours and get the hell away from here! Like I said. I’ll give you a job over at my place. But you are not staying here. Not another day! Not another minute!”

Tyree backed down the steps, so mad he could bite a nail in two.

“I ought to kill you, you arrogant, self righteous, mule humping, flea-bitten, worm infested, greenhorn stinking pig farmer!” He cursed loudly.

“Get off this property, Mr. Allison. Leave now. Before you regret it.”

“I regret ever coming here. I guess that’s what you wanna hear, ain’t it?”

He gathered his gear, cursing the entire time as he saddled his horse and rode off into the woods.

He was stunned. Ms. Aileen and he got along just fine. Malone’s words ricocheted around his head. Had she really asked Malone to make him leave? He remembered the last things she said to him before she left. Maybe she had asked Malone to fire him for her.

He was at a loss. He rode down to the creek and checked his traps, skinning out five rabbits and resetting the traps. The more he thought about it, the madder he got. He took the rabbits to the smoke house and hung them there. Malone was gone. Ms. Aileen was gone. He kept looking around, expecting one or both of them any minute.

She had, he decided, gone straight to Malone after he’d come in with bruises on his face. She had been upset because he’d gotten in a fight and got himself locked up.

He set his back against a tree trunk and watched the creek eddy in the pool below him. Malone was right. He didn’t belong here. He gathered his gear and left. He headed toward Malachi’s, but changed his mind and headed for Mudtown.

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